My Thoughts on the 2019 Georgia Death Race Controversy

AJW's TaproomLast weekend, I had a fantastic time volunteering at the Georgia Death Race outside Blairsville, Georgia. In what has quickly become one of the top races in the United States, this year’s race featured perfect weather and a competitive field.

In the aftermath of the race, stories surfaced about how many runners, some estimate as many as 40% of the field, took a wrong turn early in the race. The course section in question was in the infamous Dragon’s Spine portion of the course where the race traverses a series of steep nobs and gaps, a unique geographical feature in this region of North Georgia. On one of these nobs, there is a U.S. Forest Service crew working to re-route the trail around the nob and it was there that the runners made the wrong turn. It turns out that the Forest Service crew had marked their trail with pink ribbons which were the same color as the ribbons the race was using. The result was a route that was 0.3 miles longer with 400 feet less climbing. After reviewing the situation, race director Sean Blanton chose to issue a time penalty to all the runners who took the wrong turn and the results were adjusted accordingly.

While I understand the sentiment of those who are calling for all of the runners who deviated from the proper course to be disqualified, I support Blanton’s decision to issue a time penalty rather than a disqualification. Ultrarunning is, by it’s very nature, an imperfect sport. Part of that imperfection is clearly on display here. Most of us know that marking trails deep in the mountains can be challenging. Indeed, some long events take as long as a month to mark their courses ahead of their races. Clearly in this case, the race is somewhat at fault as they did not more specifically block the wrong turn or provide more obvious disincentive to take the re-route. As such, for the race to take responsibility for that is the correct move as is the issuance of a time penalty rather than a DQ.

What all this brings to mind for me is that it is an example of how much I enjoy and even cherish being part of this community. Here is a situation that is clearly rife with conflict and will invariably be a lose-lose scenario for the race. So, knowing that, I have to believe Blanton made the decision he thought was best, which is and always will be the race director’s prerogative, and made it publicly known. Then, the community members can make their future decisions based on this information.

In so many parts of modern life, we feel powerless; we feel as though life is just something that happens to us. In ultrarunning, it’s not that. Rather, life is what we make it. In this case at GDR, there are certainly opinions and fault and blame. But there is also a wonderful opportunity to implement change, make better decisions, and learn so that we can do better next time. But in order to do that we need to accept that there will different perspectives and move toward those rather than away from them.

From my perspective, this situation is a classic ‘spirit of the law’ versus ‘letter of the law’ debate. In our sport, while there certainly need to be rules, we tend to be a place where the spirit of the law generally prevails. Sure, 40% of the field ran a slightly longer section of trail with slightly less elevation gain. As a result they were penalized. That seems to me to be about right. And, here’s the best part, if you think it’s wrong there is plenty you can do about it and in that resulting dialogue we can move us collectively forward not as a divisive bunch of frustrated pessimists but as a more open and cooperative group, united by the love of what we do, even in the midst of vehement disagreement.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens, Georgia. This past weekend Jason Green gave me a can of one of their limited-edition beers and it was incredible. The I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore Hazy Double IPA is simply one of the best beers of this variety I have tasted. If you find yourself in the Athens area this spring/summer, be sure to pick some up.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Please feel welcome to share your thoughts on what happened at the 2019 Georgia Death Race. We appreciate that this is a sensitive subject for some people, and that we will also have different opinions. We welcome debate and disagreement, but our comment policy requires you to do so in a constructive way that is respectful for all members of our community. Thank you in advance.

There are 88 comments

  1. RBC

    It’s clear enough that reasonable people have arrived at wildly different conclusions about whether the runners who went off-course should have been penalized and, if so, what sort of penalty would have been appropriate. That’s typically how it goes with these sorts of things. Or at least that’s how I remember it going with Leadville in 2014 and Hardrock in 2018. Inevitably, there are going to be people who disagree with the call that the race director makes and there’s always going to be a fair amount of disagreement about what is just and fair given the circumstances. The issue I have with your position is that it’s based on your assumption that Sean Blanton was motivated not by a desire to resolve the issue fairly, but by an interest to preserve a friend’s place in the standings. You’ve challenged his credibility and character without any apparent basis, which strikes me as fundamentally uncool.

    1. Ben

      Well, I’m not intentionally challenging his credibility and character. I’m also not saying or suggesting he was purely motivated by a desire to preserve friend’s places in the standings. But you have to admit, it’s ‘ironical’, no?

      However, if you would like to take it there I will simply say that I have seen his social media posts over the years (and in this instance), heard him speak and understood how he treats people, and potentially understood more of what happened in this case, and I think Sean could handle things differently in a number of situations. So I’ll leave it there as it’s good Sean has his supporters.

  2. Jeremy H

    Two days of sick belly pre-race took the sting out of me and rendered me tired and messed up by the time I got to that junction in question. I was somewhere around 3rd-4th place and already cramping- and puking wasn’t far down the road. At that critical junction, I stopped for about 30 seconds, looked at the options and never saw any flagging with USFS writing on it. One option had some downed logs and looked obscure, so I took the more obvious trail which had tons of pink flagging. I figured they didn’t use the “USFS” markers because there was already a pink ribbon every 50 feet or so on that trail. My guess was that they were improving the trail and since it was already marked, the marking crew just rolled along. In my hazy brain, it seemed like just a few minutes down the way I was seeing USFS markers, so I figured all was cool. The cramps got worse, I lost all ability to ingest anything (even water) and I puked for the next 15 or so miles to drop with Travis Z at about the 50K mark. My body was DESTROYED and I am still sore and weak 9 days later from covering the miles with nothing in the tank. What I saw out there was excellent and I am really bummed that I couldn’t see the rest. So, I guess I would have been assessed a 1 hour penalty and probably missed my Golden Ticket, even if I held together. I think I should have been either DQ’ed at mile 21 where I saw RD Sean and was asked about the junction, as I never covered the actual trail. Or the foul could have been just ruled a non issue and let the race unfold. As it was, I figured I was suffering for no good reason, as I suspected a DQ would happen.

    I should mention, I briefly got off course 2 other times early on, always at junctions on forest roads, and both of which there were campsites nearby obscuring the view somewhat, without reflectors while it was still dark. As an RD of trail ultras myself in Idaho (IMTUF100 and McCall Trailrunning Classic), I learned early that I had to mark the courses myself or I couldn’t sleep at night. So I mark them myself and I practice 2 things that I think may have helped out there. I’m not pointing any fingers or suggesting the getting off course was anything but my fault, just saying how I would have handled the course marking. ONE, at funky junctions, place a sign with an arrow and some context words or at least some ground flagging directing you in the right direction, then you look up and see the main pink flagging as a confidence marker that you are on route. I custom make these signs for each individual junction, place them with great care, then run backwards and run through again to make sure the sign is oriented properly. Some junctions take me 20 minutes to get it right but it is worth it. It also means running with a big pack full of signs instead of just a few rolls of ribbon which is why it takes me a solid week to mark a course. TWO, mark the course in the direction that the race will go. In the days before the race, I checked out some of the course and the course marking that was happening was being done in reverse. If this critical junction was marked in that manner, they would not have seen it through the runner’s eyes and recognized just how confusing it was. Add in some reflectors for the first few hours of the race and that should secure the course for competitive purposes, for anything short of intentional vandalism. The signage and reflectors may even prevent the vandals, as it adds a legit look to the course that can’t be mistaken as some hunter’s discarded flagging. I think most people would only strip a course thinking they were cleaning up someone’s mess, not out of malice. Make the markers look more official and only your hardened vandal will bite. GDR’s USFS markers are clever and help to accomplish this.

    Congrats to the finishers and to the holders of the coveted Golden Tickets. I was very impressed with the entire setting and the terrain was fantastic. The GDR is an excellent race and I hope to be back some day.

    Cheers,
    Jer

    1. Lightning

      “At that critical junction, I stopped for about 30 seconds, looked at the options and never saw any flagging with USFS writing on it. One option had some downed logs and looked obscure, so I took the more obvious trail which had tons of pink flagging. I figured they didn’t use the “USFS” markers because there was already a pink ribbon every 50 feet or so on that trail. My guess was that they were improving the trail and since it was already marked, the marking crew just rolled along. In my hazy brain, it seemed like just a few minutes down the way I was seeing USFS markers, so I figured all was cool.”

      “I’m not pointing any fingers or suggesting the getting off course was anything but my fault, just saying how I would have handled the course marking. ”

      You make the best case for no penalty. If you and 17/20 first runners, basically almost everyone that went through there before someone ran down and corrected the markings, then the course WAS inadequately marked. Even with the fine-print kind of warning to look for flagging marked in a certain way, it’s got to be fairly obvious for someone going at speed. If you have to stop and question, and still go the wrong way, there’s no way it’s adequate marking.

      1. Trevor

        i’m being half facetious but runner’s are supposed to know the course right? seems almost cut and dry , things are complicated when you introduce time penalities instead of just DQ’ing. i dnk the answer but im not sympathetic to those who see the flagging as the “race director’s fault’ lmao

  3. Jer

    It was inadequate marking. That is why I suggested using signage and ground flagging and not marking the course in reverse. Still I, as a competitor must run the actual course, whether it is marked or not. I dont care for the post hoc time penalties. I think penalties issued at the time of the foul (at next aid at 21mi), done so everyone knows the competitive landscape going forward, and issued in proportion with the foul (3 to 5 mins), would be fine. This is tricky, as proof can not be instantly had and communicated through the field. It was a tough decision. As RD, I think I would have said no foul and let the race unfold naturally, while explaining the decision and the time vs. distances ran to all the relevant competitors as soon as I possibly could. I think with 6 or 7 hours more running to go to determine the Golden Tickets, the runners wouldn’t have lost it over a few minutes difference in the 2 routes.

  4. Sam P.

    Sean Blanton is totally baked. His brain is fired on marijuana and alcohol. “Dude, bro…I am not an ultrafanboy.”
    Clearly, he is not a RD fanboy either.
    He skewed the race results, so that his friends get placed higher. He doesn’t really care about any else, except the elites.
    Stop kidding yourselves, the only thing that matters now in ultrarunning is the elites, this sport has become their world.
    Eliminate the Golden Ticket races, and go with straight lottery and then (hopefully) this won’t happen again.
    Otherwise, Golden Ticket races will always be rigged for the elites, that is all anyone cares about right?

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